Imagine Mr. Macy (or Mr. Bloomingdale, or Sam Walton) faced with a gang of nutty customers who show up at their stores unprepared to shop for what they need, walk up the down escalators, shop for men’s clothes in garden supplies and for children’s clothes in automotive, and who confuse underwear and cookware.
When these customers, predictably, find themselves with the wrong thing, they blame the store, sit in the middle of the aisles, shout and pout and demand better service. When Mr. Macy tries to improve things by assigning them professional shoppers to guide them through the store, at least when they are in danger of doing real harm to themselves or their kids, they refuse to pay the bills. And when Mr. Macy needs to get his store license renewed, they don T-shirts protesting against him and flood the Capitol demanding that he be closed down.
That is pretty much what is happening with regard to the flood of self-reps into our family courts. There is a cohort of these people who appear fundamentally unable to deal with systems and rules. They pride themselves on being in “high-conflict” situations. They file dozens and dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of motions. (Try searching the names of the most vocal of them on the judicial databases. You will be amazed at what you find.)
These litigants refuse to compromise or cooperate with regard to the simplest matters. They use the courts to advance their own narcissistic and histrionic agendas. They blame everyone but themselves for their problems, and post their complaints about everything and everyone on blogs and other internet soapboxes in vitriolic and ad hominem attacks. They drain every ounce of time and patience from the judges and court personnel who must deal with them.
When judges grow so frustrated that they feel it necessary to appoint guardians ad litem and/or attorneys for minor children to at least make sure that their children do not suffer any more than they have already from the unfortunate burden of having these folks as parents, the parents refuse to pay the bills, claim that the system is broken, and that the GAL/AMC bar is corrupt and only interested in lining its own pockets.
When the judges who labor every day to move business through their busy courts over the interference from the craziest of the self-reps are up for reappointment, these folks have T-shirts printed up with slogans demanding they be fired and mass the Capitol to protest their reappointment. There, unbelievably, they find receptive ears with some credulous legislators. Yes, this system may be broken, but it is not the judges or lawyers who did it.
I was at a meeting recently where I heard of changes proposed to the GAL/AMC system in response to the increasing noise from this “high-conflict divorce” crew. Some of it made sense, including establishing a code of conduct and a schedule of recommended fees, though from reviewing a lot of these cases in the lawyer disciplinary system, I can’t say that either of these will make much of a difference. Most of the lawyers doing this work are dedicated, capable and able advocates, and they earn their fees and more. There have been very few cases involving imposed discipline with regard to GAL/AMC lawyers, though many, many hours have been wasted on meritless complaints.
Another proposal is to move GAL/AMC regulation outside of the Judicial Branch, though just where it might land seems to be anybody’s guess. This would be a huge step, and contrary to centuries of tradition of judges regulating lawyers. Maybe the GAL/AMC bar will be regulated by the Department of Consumer Protection, along with hair-braiders, electricians and well drillers. But unless these new regulators seem something I never did, this is another solution in search of a problem.
I was at a symposium the other day where someone mentioned that Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York Court of Appeals was thinking of implementing a system where free concierges will be provided to self-reps in the New York family courts. I guess this might be like “GAL/AMC lite.” The idea is that the judges can operate better when they deal with skilled advocates, but that these folks do not necessarily have to be lawyers. These personnel will be able to guide the self-reps though the system with fewer speed bumps, will help them understand what courts can and cannot do, and will draw some of the criticism away from the judges and the system.
Seems like a rational idea, but there is little rational about a lot of this system and many of these characters. •